You should make a lot more panoramic photographs. It’s a great way to capture a larger view of the world, and you don’t need to buy a new lens. In fact, you’ll find that a panorama gives a better view than simply using a wide angle lens because the objects far away are not diminished as much as they are with a wide angle lens. There are many options for stitching the pieces of the panorama together. For my work, I’ve found Lightroom is usually adequate, and Photoshop does it a little better. Those who make a living selling panoramas often suggest tools like PTGui. A google search will yield many options.
Here are four ideas to help you get started with your panos.
Find a Good Picture
Just because you make it a panorama won’t make it a good picture. You’ll need to practice composing your panos. I recommend shooting a few more frames than you’ll need so you’ve got room to crop the edges for the best results. Also, practice shooting quickly so you can catch the light before it changes. I used to have a GigaPan, which is a great tool for making huge panoramas. However, by the time it finished shooting a huge panorama of a beautiful scene the light had changed and the picture didn’t look awesome anymore. I find that with practice I can shoot faster than a gigapan and still capture beautiful light at sunset. With practice, you’ll be able to capture beautiful scenes quickly, too. Having said all that, the bigger you print a panorama, the better it looks. Even mediocre pictures printed mural size look pretty incredible.
Level Your Tripod
Modern stitching software will allow you to stitch panoramas that you shoot handheld, but you’ll still get better results shooting on a tripod–especially if you’re combining long exposures with your panos. When you use a tripod, do your best to level it before you begin. If the tripod is not level, then the resulting pano will climb to one side, and you’ll have to crop a lot of the edges off to get a level horizon.
Leveling on uneven ground is tricky. Your tripod probably has some bubble levels, and your camera has a built-in artificial horizon, which you can use to level the tripod. Just level the camera in the middle of your pano, then turn it left and right and if the horizon moves off level, then your tripod isn’t level, and you can adjust the legs to compensate. It’s not a perfect way to level your sticks, but it works pretty well. You can also buy a head that has the pan on top of the ball, like some from Really Right Stuff and Vanguard.
Shoot a Grid
Only smartphones require that panos be long and skinny. Your software can stitch several rows of pictures together, and this is a wonderful way to work. You can get the quality and depth of field of a longer lens with the field of view of a wider lens. Try it. Go shoot a scene three rows wide and three rows tall. You won’t have to change lenses as frequently, and you’ll be able to make the background out of focus even on large subjects. More on this technique is found in this article.
I shot this grid under the bridge in Newport, OR. It gave me a great view of the scene, and it saved me from changing to my ultra wide lens in the rain.
Shoot HDR Panos
This’ll blow your mind, and might blow up your computer, too. You can shoot a bracket of images at each stop in the pano, and create a marvelous HDR pano. Because you’re shooting so many pictures and there’s a lot of chance for movement, I strongly suggest using a tripod. Also, use the degree tick marks on your tripod head so that you don’t even have to look through the viewfinder. Looking through the viewfinder and at the tick marks, I saw that moving the head three tick marks would give me the recommended 20% overlap for each frame. The more automatic you can make panos and HDR’s, the better your results will be.
Stitch the panos together first, then use your HDR software. Photomatix does a terrific job of putting these large files together. It wisely uses a lower resolution preview so that the changes you make render quickly and you can immediately see what your picture will look like. You can still zoom in and see a full resolution preview. Two things to make your computer run faster: use fewer images from the bracket, and try it first with lower resolution files. You probably don’t need all nine frames from your Nikon’s bracket to make a good HDR, and you definitely don’t need all 50 megapixels from every frame from your Canon. make the HDR with a smaller jpeg file to allow the computer to work quickly. If you love the result, then make a full resolution version; you can go shoot more pictures while it renders. I love the way Photomatix works and it makes HDR panos simple.
Don’t spend money on a new wide angle lens just yet. Get out there and shoot panos instead. You’ll find the challenge really stimulates your creativity. It’s really a whole new genre of photography, and the possibilities are endless. Think what you could do with portraits, or closeups, or food photography. Tag me when you post in the Photofocus Facebook group; I’d love to see what you make.